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Opinion: He called a $33,000 sewer fee ‘unethical’. Burnaby appears to be caving, but should it?

I’ve been fascinated watching the battle in 2020 over a City of Burnaby initiative to expand the storm sewer system.
Image: Pixabay

I’ve been fascinated watching the battle in 2020 over a City of Burnaby initiative to expand the storm sewer system.

In 2017, council passed a bylaw that would see homeowners billed for storm sewer extensions, but earlier this year, the bylaw received criticism from property owners.

After he was hit with a bill of $33,277 for his contribution to the storm sewer extension on his block, Dave Hayre told the NOW in January and then again in August of this year that it was “unfair” and "unethical" for the city to download the costs onto property owners. Hayre was seeking to tear down and replace his home on Napier Street in Willingdon Heights.

I want to make clear here that Hayre is not the only one upset about this bylaw. Multiple homeowners have emailed me about the issue, which they say could impact more than 6,000 properties in Burnaby.

These folks are a hard bunch to please. The NOW wrote a story in January and then Hayre contacted us again in the summer about writing about the issue again, which we did.

Some homeowners wrote me accusing us of “ignoring” the issue and so I sent the links to the two stories, which is ample coverage considering there wasn’t anything new to report on the issue. But that wasn’t good enough, they said, as though we are supposed to write a weekly story on their plight.  

But then, recently, there was something new.

The City of Burnaby is now looking at cutting in half the rate property owners would pay.

Roughly 20% of residential lots – about 6,000 of the city’s 30,000 lots – have no existing storm sewer service.

The implementation of storm sewers has been piecemeal work, with the city waiting to create the sewers for each residential block until a property owner seeks a building permit for a project exceeding $250,000. Prior to 2017, the city billed that property owner for the first 47.5 metres of the storm sewer on that block, and the city would cover the remainder.

That typically meant one property owner on the block covered about $25,000, with the city paying $30,000 to $150,000 per storm sewer extension, a cost of about $500,000 to $1 million each year.

Staff suggested the city continue the same scheme but also recover the remainder of the costs from the other property owners on that city block when the city receives development applications for those properties.

The rationale, according to the city, was to share the costs between property owners, rather than one property owner in each block bearing part of the costs alone, and to recover the remainder of the costs – about $200 million overall – to the city.

According to an October 2020 report to council, the program cost has been on average about $22,000 to the 550 properties that have benefited from a storm sewer extension since 2017. That’s before paying for lost interest, a cost that is passed on to property owners.

The city digs into its reserves to pay for the projects, meaning that funding could otherwise be gaining interest. Staff noted the city continues to receive comments that property owners “feel that this storm extension service cost is still too high” and are now recommending sharing it half and half between property owners and the city.

In October, the financial planning committee was set to make a decision on whether or not to recommend the city split the cost 50/50 with property owners, but the matter was deferred to November.

My question is why is the city considering cutting the cost in half?

Is it because these homeowners complained? Is that enough of a reason to give them a 50% discount?

After all, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars here. If the city goes for it – and I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t – taxpayers deserve a full explanation about why they are making the change. It can’t just be because some homeowners complained.

The funny thing is that these homeowners who have contacted the NOW previously are furious at the suggestion that they even pay the 50%. They are potentially getting a 50% discount and they’re still angry about it. Some people you just can’t please. 

  • With additional reporting by Dustin Godfrey

Follow Chris Campbell on Twitter @shinebox44.